The assassination of Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha has led to a declarations of revenge by Iraqi Sunnis rather than the intimidation that al-Qaeda intended. By killing the Sunni leader, al-Qaeda in Iraq appears to have burned their last bridge with Iraq’s Sunni community:
“We will take our revenge,” the mourners chanted along the 10 kilometer, or six mile, route to Sattar’s family cemetery, many of them crying. “We will continue the march of Abu Risha.”
Sattar was buried one year after he organized 25 Sunni Arab clans under the umbrella of the Anbar Awakening Council, an alliance against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, to drive terrorists from sanctuaries where they had flourished after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Al Qaeda’s front in Iraq took responsibility in a Web statement Friday for the slaying of Sattar. “Allah enabled your brothers … to track down and assassinate the imam of infidelity and apostasy … one of the dogs of Bush,” said the statement by the Islamic State of Iraq. It described the murder as a “heroic operation that took over a month to prepare.”
Wisely, the Iraqi government is using this opportunity to develop inroads with the Sunni community by holding an investigation into the death of Shiek Sattar. The sectarian divisions in Iraq are being covered up by a universal hatred of AQI — the one force that is commonly against all sides, Sunni, Shi’a, and even American.
What has always needed to happen is for their to be a grass-roots nationalism that transcends Iraq’s sectarian divisions. It is quite possible that AQI has just created just such a phenomenon. By taking such an action, it has ensured that the Sunni population views them as an enemy rather than an ally — meaning that the progress made by Iraqis and US forces in places like al-Anbar, Diyala, and Salah-al-Din will only continue.
In terms of geopolitical strategy, getting rid of al-Qaeda in Iraq is priority number one for the United States. To see Iraq as a place where terrorism has little to no purchase is the key objective of this conflict. Yes, a democratic Iraq remains crucial, but democratic development is something that can happen organically without the need for a significant US presence in Iraq. If the Iraqis can push groups like al-Qaeda out, there is little need for a significant US troop presence in the country.
This is the first time since al-Qaeda began their campaign to create a civil war in Iraq that there is a “light at the end of the tunnel” for US forces. The sectarian conflict in Iraq was largely the product of a conscious al-Qaeda strategy, kicked off by the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. The worst thing that can happen is for the Iraqi people to united against al-Qaeda — which seems to be happening.
The events of this week could signal a significant shift in the Iraq conflict, and a major case of blowback for al-Qaeda in Iraq. AQI’s failed attempt to intimidate the Sunnis into accepting their rule has driven a massive wedge between the Sunni population and AQI — one that could well prove fatal for AQI’s ambition of using Iraq as the germ of a new Islamic caliphate.